Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School

Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School

Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School

Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School


This book considers in unprecedented detail one of the most confounding questions in American racial practice: when to speak about people in racial terms. Viewing "race talk" through the lens of a California high school and district, Colormute draws on three years of ethnographic research on everyday race labeling in education. Based on the author's experiences as a teacher as well as an anthropologist, it discusses the role race plays in everyday and policy talk about such familiar topics as discipline, achievement, curriculum reform, and educational inequality.

Pollock illustrates the wide variations in the way speakers use race labels. Sometimes people use them without thinking twice; at other moments they avoid them at all costs or use them only in the description of particular situations. While a major concern of everyday race talk in schools is that racial descriptions will be inaccurate or inappropriate, Pollock demonstrates that anxiously suppressing race words (being what she terms "colormute") can also cause educators to reproduce the very racial inequities they abhor.

The book assists readers in cultivating a greater understanding of the pitfalls and possibilities of everyday race talk and clarifies previously murky discussions of "colorblindness." By bridging the gap between theory and practice, Colormute will be enormously helpful in fostering ongoing conversations about dismantling racial inequality in America.


When I arrived in California City to teach at Columbus High School in 1994, I was 23 years old, one year out of college, and convinced that it was crucial to expose racial categories as social constructions. As I sit here completing this book on the other coast, I am 31 years old, a new professor, and convinced of the need to use racial categories to design solutions to racialized inequality. in between then and now, I became a teacher, an anthropologist, and an adult. I dedicate this book to the many people who helped me become all three.

In particular—though my family means the world to me—I dedicate this book to Columbus people, some of whom remain my dearest friends; for it is upon them that any critique present in this book may appear to rest. Yet though based at Columbus, this book is really about American race talk. I think that U.S. readers—whether they work in schools or not—will find Columbus people's dilemmas of talking racially distinctly familiar.

As both a former “native” of Columbus life and a person raised in the United States, throughout this research I have truly been my own fieldnote (Jean Jackson 1990), for I have myself lived all the dilemmas I describe here. After teaching at Columbus from 1994 to 1995, doing research with people I cared about very much—and in a culture I thought I knew well—was a project of exploring both self and other, one both enlightening and excruciating. Scribbling in a private journal in 1994–95 in the hopes of writing a memoir in the (tired) “first-year teacher” genre, and sitting at my kitchen table nearly every night in graduate school writing ethnographic fieldnotes in 1995–97, over the space of three years at Columbus I lived each day twice. Writing my fieldnotes—which were primarily, from the beginning, obsessive direct reconstructions of the countless conversations I had had throughout each day—both brought me closer to the people I cared about at Columbus and somehow distanced me painfully from them. Personalities, expressions, laughter, and struggles somehow got reduced to words on paper; yet reliving each turn of phrase, each muttered complaint, each joke and heated argument, also gave me a permanent appreciation for Columbus people, and for the complexity and importance of what they struggled with in their everyday lives.

Although retreading the words of my former students and colleagues often had me laughing at my computer, this analysis came to focus on the dilemmas of everyday American race talk and silence, a fact that made its writing particularly problematic. Investigating the use of race labels (rather than the nebulous “race,” which I returned to Columbus originally to study) soon demanded that . . .

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